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Finance & Development
A quarterly magazine of the IMF
December 2000, Volume 37, Number 4

Food Production or Food Aid?: An African Challenge
Willy H. Verheye

Food production is not keeping pace with Africa's rapidly growing needs. Aid programs in the 1970s and 1980s were considered a temporary solution to the most appalling famines, but Africa's food shortage appears to be worsening. This paper discusses the reasons for this situation and ways to address it.

Despite massive technical assistance and a growing share of international development aid—between 1990 and 1996, sub-Saharan Africa received approximately 26 percent of all financial aid allocated to developing countries (Bhattacharya and others, 1997)—Africa still produces too little food. Although total food production in real terms has increased, rising from an index of 100 in 1965 to 221 in 1998, it declined, on a per capita basis, from 100 to 86 over the same period (FAO, 1965-98). For some of these years, the reduced yields can be attributed to drought, but climatic conditions cannot explain the long-term trends in agricultural production. At the start of this new century, Africa is even more dependent on food aid than it was 35 years ago.

This situation has serious political implications, especially in light of the overall perception that Africa's land potential is still largely untapped (FAO, 1991). Over the past twenty years, many African countries that had been food exporters have become net importers. Not only have they become dependent on foreign aid, but their increasing food bill has become a serious budgetary and political obstacle to progress and growth. Sierra Leone, which exported rice in the 1960s but is now importing it at an approximate cost of $22 million a year, is a case in point. One cannot help but question the relevance of the existing system of food aid, which was initially introduced as a temporary solution and has now reached approximately 80 million tons of cereals a year (WHO, 1996).

The origin of the problem appears to be neither climatological nor technical (such as the quality of the soil): abundant rain has fallen in West Africa over the past several years, and there are now solutions for most technical problems. Rather, the problem is linked to socioeconomic issues and to the inability of traditional structures (there is little or no tradition of making a living by producing for the market) to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing society.

Population trends

Africa today is experiencing two major demographical trends. First, the continent's population is increasing at an average rate of 3-4 percent a year and has almost doubled in the past 25 years; it is expected to reach 1 billion within the next few years. Second, the number of people employed in agriculture has decreased significantly (from 74 percent in 1965 to 57 percent in 1998); this decline is associated with the drift of young males from rural areas toward urban and industrial centers. These two trends are seriously undermining the traditions of rural African societies, which, for centuries, have centered on a subsistence economy and local food self-sufficiency.

In Sierra Leone, for example, the population increased from about 2.3 million in 1965 to 4.2 million in 1995. The urban share of the population grew from 19 percent in 1963 to 31.5 percent in 1985, and was estimated to be nearly 40 percent in 1995. In real terms, this corresponds to a10-fold increase in the number of net urban consumers, from 150,000 in 1965 to nearly 1,500,000 in 1995. In contrast, the population of the rural areas—where food is produced—remained essentially stable over this period but has not been able to meet the requirements of a burgeoning urban population. Consequently, in 1995, Sierra Leone was obliged to import about 186,000 metric tons of rice.

Three major points emerge from these data:

(1) The substantial population growth in almost all African countries affects urban and industrial centers much more than rural areas. Hence, while the number of food producers remains essentially unchanged, the number of urban consumers is rapidly increasing.

(2) Since the 1960s, there has been a mass exodus of young, active males from rural areas to the cities and industrial and tourist centers in search of jobs. Most activities in rural areas are now carried out by women, school-age children, and the elderly.

(3) Eating habits in urban areas are different from those in rural areas. In the provinces, people traditionally eat millet, sorghum, maize, or cassava, while rice is rapidly becoming a dietary staple in cities. Meeting the growing demand for food in Africa should focus, in the first instance, on the fastest-growing population group—that is, urban settlers—and on rice production, for which there exists a large potential in Africa.

Land constraints

Total available land in Africa is estimated at about 198 million hectares (FAO, 1965-98), some of which is still unexplored or only partially used. The pressures created by a booming population are increasing the competition for land, primarily along the main access roads surrounding the rapidly expanding urban and industrial centers. Farming must then shift inland, where road networks are often not developed and access and communications are more difficult.

Access to land in Africa is further hampered by land-tenure regulations, which are based on the usufruct principle that land can be used but not individually owned. The village chief is custodian of the land and decides how it should be used. As a result, motivated farmers can be denied access to land, even if it is physically available. The fact that a land lease can be revoked at any time does not inspire good husbandry practices, because leaseholders cannot be sure of obtaining the long-term benefits of their efforts. Land tenure is a hot issue in rural African societies, and a number of countries have begun to modernize their land legislation.

In conclusion, the availability of land is only a relative constraint in Africa. Generally, land is unlikely to become scarce except in and around major cities and in a few densely populated countries, such as Malawi and Rwanda. The misconception about land availability exists because most calculations of per capita available land continue to be based on total population rather than on rural population.

Quality of land

Most African soils are highly weathered (a result of the combined effect of relatively high rainfall and high temperature) and poor in nutrients, problems that African farmers cannot, because of their low purchasing power and lack of cash, afford to correct with the modern solution of applying organo-mineral fertilizers. Traditional methods—slash-and-burn farming—overcome this problem by introducing a fallow period in the crop rotation, which allows fertility to build up in the root zone through an accumulation of leaf litter and ashes after the vegetation has been burned. Farmers are able to cultivate two to three crops before they must repeat the cycle. However, this system of shifting cultivation is labor-intensive and an inefficient use of the land (because it wastes space). In addition, the length of the fallow period determines the fertility of the fallow land, with 10-15 years being optimal. Because of a crucial labor shortage—and not because of population pressures as has often been suggested—and the outmigration of young, mostly male family members during the time when fields need to be prepared, farmers have tended to shorten the fallow period. The remaining labor force must be able to handle the forest regrowth on the fallow land, which would be unmanageable if the fallow period exceeded five to six years.

When land is not allowed to lie fallow for the optimal length of time, the soil is less fertile and the crop yield lower. In Sierra Leone, for example, the average yields for rice dropped from 700 to 516 kilograms per hectare during 1978-92. In The Gambia, average yields for rain-fed rice are 400-500 kilograms per hectare and reflect the shortened fallow period, during which nutrients and organic material have too little time to build up. If those yields drop below subsistence levels, farmers increase the cultivated acreage but lack the incentive to produce more than they need to feed their families. Clearly, these countries are not realizing their full production potential.

From subsistence to market economy

Because agriculture in Africa is traditionally associated with subsistence food production, only a fraction of the total yield is sold on the local market. With the rapid development of urban growth centers over the past 20-25 years, opportunities now exist for farmers to produce more food in order to meet the needs of urban dwellers. The shift from a subsistence to a market economy, however, requires a change in mentality and must be supported by both technical and economic measures. As a first step, farming must be seen as an attractive employment option by the young people who have been leaving rural areas for the cities in search of jobs that offer more money and higher status (Verheye, 2000).

African policymakers should consider intensifying and diversifying local production and establishing systems for marketing and setting prices. Individual farmers or farmers' communities must take the initiative for the former, while governments must take responsibility for developing and maintaining road networks.

Intensification and diversification. Increasing crop production will be commercially viable only if there are effective markets for farm products. Given that social changes are increasing the demand for rice, it would make sense to focus on increasing rice production.

A number of upland farmers in The Gambia—whose millet and sorghum production was gradually decreasing—recently adopted such a strategy. They acquired usufruct rights in the lowlands of The Gambia River system and shifted part of their activities to swamp rice cultivation. In good years, and supported by improved farming techniques, their production rapidly exceeded their families' needs and they were able to market some of their surplus yields. In the meantime, they were leaving part of the uplands fallow for some years. When those fields were later cultivated, their average millet yield was 50-100 percent higher, confirming the positive effect of the fallow practice in this ecology.

Some of the most progressive farmers converted their upland fields into agro-forestry plots, installing cattle on the land for part of the year and using the manure as fertilizer. As a result, upland areas can now be cultivated much more intensively than before, providing a reasonably good cereal crop and producing almost continuous income from off-farm activities, such as the sale of firewood, charcoal, and timber products, for which demand is high. These wood products have also begun to serve as a basis for cottage industries and indigenous art objects for the tourist market.

Marketing and price setting. Optimizing crop yields means little to farmers if their produce cannot be marketed and converted into cash. A marketing system must be developed, along with the conditions that will enable the markets to function. A crucial aspect of the marketing system is the development of a proper road network for transporting goods from the often remote production areas to the markets. The lack of such networks has been a critical bottleneck in African rural economies, where the transport of bulk products has been hazardous and costly, opening the way for exorbitant handling charges by third parties and leading to noncompetitive market prices.

Governments must also establish entities to regulate the markets by setting the prices of goods. Market prices are crucial for creating the incentives that will encourage local farmers to increase production. Although prices are partly affected by external factors, governments still play a decisive role in fixing prices and, ultimately, in directly supporting national agricultural production. Governments must, however, adjust their current pricing policies; for example, they should not subsidize imported goods to the extent that local production is harmed, as was the case in Sierra Leone, where the price of a bag of local rice—the national staple food—was about 320 leones ($26-$32) in 1995, while imported, subsidized rice was priced at 280 leones ($23-$28) in the Freetown market.


African agriculture is at a turning point. If it succeeds in adapting to changing social needs, production can be boosted to meet the rapidly growing food needs of the cities. To achieve this goal, African countries must match their production goals with market demands, adopt up-to-date farming practices so that they can fully tap their natural production potential, and guarantee farmers fair market prices. If young people have better income opportunities and, thus, a higher social status in rural communities, they will be less tempted to migrate to the cities, where often they only add to the number of unemployed and contribute to social unrest. If Africa does not take up this challenge, agriculture will not rise above subsistence level, while national food bills will continue to mount and, ultimately, hamper further development.

Amar Bhattacharya, Peter J. Montiel, and Sunil Sharma, 1997, "How Can Sub-Saharan Africa Attract More Private Capital Inflows?"
Finance & Development, Vol. 34 (June), pp. 3-6.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 1965-98,
FAO annual production yearbooks (Rome).
———, 1991,
World soil resources. An exploratory note on the FAO soil resources map at 1 : 25 million scale (Rome: World Soil Res. Rep. 66).
Willy Verheye, 2000, "Local farmers would be able to feed Africa if they were given the chance,"
Nature, 404 (March), p. 431.
World Health Organization , 1996, "Micro-nutrient malnutrition—half of the world's population affected,"
WHO Bulletin (Vol. 78), pp. 1-4.

Willy H. Verheye is Research Director, Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders (Belgium), and a long-time consultant to international development organizations.